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“Even though Josquin Desprez is one of the most important and most intriguing Renaissance composers, his music is not performed in Prague all that often. We are therefore delighted that, to mark the 500th anniversary of his death, the Huelgas Ensemble, one of the finest vocal ensembles of its kind, has put together a special programme for the Prague Spring dedicated to his work,” says Programme Director Josef Třeštík. The concert held at Prague Crossroads will focus on the composer’s final period, spent in his native region in the town of Condé-sur-l’Escaut in present-day northern France, where he finally settled after his return from Italy. “Josquin was a pioneer. He mastered all the contrapuntal techniques to control his polyphony as he wished, often in violation of the accepted rules,” states founder and Artistic Director of the Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel.
Paul Van Nevel launched the Huelgas Ensemble in 1971 at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. The ensemble, which derives its name from the famous mediaeval liturgical codex from the Spanish Cistercian convent of Las Huelgas, has long been known as a pioneer in the performance of European mediaeval and Renaissance polyphony. It rightly deserves this status since its artistic director not only draws on musical sources, but also examines period literature, rhetoric and pronunciation. With watertight knowledge of period contexts Huelgas is thus able to revive unjustly neglected compositions. Thanks to its excellent reputation it is also increasingly sought after by contemporary composers who write brand new works specially for the ensemble.
The Huelgas Ensemble has been giving concerts all over the world for forty years now – from the BBC Proms in London and the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, to New York’s Lincoln Center. They particularly enjoy performing spiritual music in the setting for which it was written, i.e. in mediaeval churches and monasteries, thus audiences can experience the synthesis of wonderful music and superb architecture, as is the case with the Prague Spring concert held in the Gothic church of St Anne at Prague Crossroads. Since 2019 the ensemble has also been organising its own Pentecostal Festival in the picturesque village of Talant in Burgundy.
The ensemble’s recordings regularly win prestigious awards, including the Diapason d’Or, Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, and an award for their CD featuring the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Baroque composer Francesca Caccini.
Paul Van Nevel himself holds numerous awards and distinctions and he continues to hand down his knowledge and experience to students at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, Hannover’s Musikhochschule and Geneva’s Early Music Centre. In addition, he headed the world famous Collegium Vocale Gent and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, he has written monographs on composers Johannes Ciconia and Nicolas Gombert, and he brings out modern editions of Renaissance music with the German publishing company Bärenreiter. The critics also praised his intriguing book The Landscape of the Polyphonists: The World of the Franco-Flemish School 1400-1600, in which he attributes the nature of the complex and melancholic works of the Franco-Flemish music school to the atmosphere of the local landscape, a place of serenity, desolation and unusual sombreness. Apart from his music publications, Van Nevel is the author of a book about the Portuguese capital Lisbon, in which he describes his 30-year association with this city, and he is also known as a cigar connoisseur.
Music theorist Johannes Tinctoris wrote in 1477: “I recently came upon several compositions by musicians from a past age, in which there was more dissonance than consonance. I elicited that only music from the last forty years is worthy of being heard by an educated person.”
As is evident from Tinctoris’s words, around the year 1440 musical thinking underwent an unprecedented regeneration, of which musicians of the time were well aware. All aspects of musical expression were transformed: melody, rhythm, harmony and quality of sound. Three distinct factors contributed to this turning point: the Hundred Years’ War, three church councils, and the increasing prosperity of Italian cities and noble courts. The English commanders who crossed the English Channel were also accompanied by their musicians, whose specific brand of melodious harmony left its mark on the European mainland. Similar situations occurred at the councils in Constance (1414-1418), Basel (1431) and Florence (1439), attended not only by church dignitaries and aristocrats from all over Europe seeking to resolve the Papal Schism, but also by their attendant musicians, who exchanged their experiences and current findings. A fundamental role in musical development was also played by the Italian aristocratic residences and the thriving towns and cities, whose wealth and celebrated culture attracted musicians from the entire transalpine region.
These three factors gave rise around the mid-15th century to a fascinating musical synthesis which brought together the traditions of complex French polyphony, mellifluous English harmony and typical Italian melodiousness. It is interesting to note that leading positions in this new stylistic trend were assumed by composers from the region of the long-flourishing Duchy of Burgundy, at that time situated in what is today north-eastern France and Benelux. The oeuvre of the Franco-Flemish school culminated in the figure of Josquin Desprez (c. 1450-1521), the 500th anniversary of whose death occurs in 2021.
We paradoxically know very little about the life of this truly Renaissance figure, who was also respected by his contemporaries. Desprez’s name appeared for the first time around the year 1470, when he was active as a musician at a ducal Provençal court and later at the cathedral in the town of Cambrai in northern France. He was then employed by the Sforza family, the rulers of the Duchy of Milan, leaving a few years later to enter the services of the pope. He stayed for a longer period working for the Duke of Ferrara as a chorusmaster while maintaining contact with the royal musicians in France and with the cathedral back in Cambrai. After the death of the Duke of Ferrara in 1505 he returned to his native region, where he remained for the rest of his life as provost of the church in Condé in northern France. Around two hundred of Josquin’s works have survived, chiefly sacred Latin motets, masses and secular French chansons. Since his compositions are constructed upon a song base, they come across as highly melodious. His broad-minded musical thinking was conveyed particularly in his motets and chansons, which reflect profound emotional qualities and a superb command of the contrapuntal technique.
“One of the highlights of Josquin’s oeuvre is indisputably the six-part motet Praeter rerum seriem, which has been handed down from no fewer than forty-one sources,” states Paul Van Nevel, commenting on the festival programme. “Magisterial in construction, this work is unique in the way that Josquin manages to shape the architecture of the polyphony. The Gregorian cantus firmus, dating from the 13th century, is recited in long note values. The counterpoint around it then elevates the music to a mystical experience,” he adds. “It is no wonder then that this composition cast such a long shadow over the next generation of composers. A wonderful example of this is the mass by Ludwig Daser, who took the motet as the model for his equally masterful composition.”